By Gillian Flynn
Updated January 05, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

JOSEPH HELLER 5.1.1923 — 12.12.1999

— The slippery, circular reasoning of war-making loops relentlessly through Heller’s Catch-22. His protagonist: a WWII bombardier who tries to get himself declared insane so he can stop flying missions. The problem: a regulation called Catch-22 stating that anyone who wants out of combat duty isn’t crazy. Published in 1961 to mixed reviews, the novel was nonetheless adopted by Vietnam-era readers as a textual rallying cry. He wrote other books, including No Laughing Matter with boyhood friend Speed Vogel, a memoir of Heller’s six-month paralyzation from the neurological disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome. But it’s Catch-22 that earned the famously prickly Heller a No. 7 ranking on Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the century. ”He was enormously proud,” remembers writer Bruce Jay Friedman, who, with Mario Puzo and Vogel, lunched with the author monthly. ”But he quickly pointed out that he didn’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be No. 1.” ESSENTIAL WORK Catch-22

PATRICK O’BRIAN 12.12.1914 — 1.2.2000

— Just as the books of Jane Austen (whom O’Brian adored) were never as much about drawing rooms as the women in them, O’Brian’s Napoleonic War-era sea adventures are most truly about the two friends living them. Blustery, confident naval officer Jack Aubrey and the reflective, opium-addicted surgeon/spy Stephen Maturin were best mates through 20 novels. Their bond was something the writer himself never knew, says biographer Dean King: ”He had a failed relationship with his father, a failed relationship with his son. Clearly the relationship of men was a great concern of his.” O’Brian — who, contrary to his claim, wasn’t really Irish — launched the series in 1969, when he was already 54. Born Richard Patrick Russ, the private novelist had a troubled first marriage before scotching his native England for a secluded French village. There with Mary, his second wife of over 50 years, O’Brian ensconced himself in his stories of friendship on the high seas. Says King: ”He went from a guy who dwelled on his pain and failures to somebody who transcended that and wrote joyful things about life.” ESSENTIAL WORK Master and Commander (1969), as an introduction to the Aubrey-Maturin series

DOUG HENNING 5.3.1947 — 2.7.2000

— Chatting up the audience during his rockin’ NBC extravaganzas of the ’70s and ’80s, the chipmunky, shaggy-haired Henning made magic deliciously accessible. ”Every TV special right up to David Blaine is just a knockoff of the first Henning special,” says magician Penn Jillette. Henning eventually traded manufactured illusion for transcendental meditation — a program that promises its adherents the ability to truly levitate and fly. He spent his last years, in fact, planning a TM theme park in his native Canada. But despite being out of the spotlight, his peers remember Henning in an appropriately upbeat light. ”Everyone liked him,” Jillette says. ”He didn’t steal tricks, he gave credit where credit was due, and he gave respect to those who went before him.”